The Norman Transcript

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September 30, 2012

Coale's pink ladder

Team galvanizes hope, determination

NORMAN — I bought a pink ladder. It happened in a backward sort of upside down way, but it was for a great cause so I didn’t mind writing the check at all. I have to admit, however, that I had no idea what I was going to do with a really expensive ladder, especially a pink one.

So when it arrived on my doorstep, I called my equipment manager to bring a truck out to ferry it to its new home, our gym. A few borderless ideas were already forming in my head; I would find a way to use it. We’d make it matter, I just wasn’t sure quite how.

It was on a Wednesday a couple of weeks later when I met with my team. We were in our film room. A stack of stats sat in front of me, a teaching edit was waiting to be played on the projector, and a pink ladder stood copiously in the front corner of the room. The 2012 season was in the books and my tremendous group of warriors, still a bit gaunt and more than a wee bit agitated about the premature end of their season, were strung out across the room.

On that seemingly innocuous Wednesday, we talked about all the things you talk about when a season ends. And then we talked about all the things you talk about when you prepare for another -- one that you’d like to see end a whole lot differently. Then I introduced them to the elephant in the room: my ladder.

I told them the brief, abridged version of how it got here to Norman, Oklahoma, and then I told them how special it was going to be for our team.

We talked about the Kay Yow Foundation. We talked about Coach Yow and her courageous battle with this insidious disease, we talked about the power of our platform as a collegiate team of women, and we talked about the symbolism of a ladder in our gym all off season: the daily reminder it could be to us of where we want to go and what it takes to get there.

Then I launched my plan for our pink ladder. I introduced our team to the concept of six-word memoirs: life statements power packed into only six words, usually simple ones strung together in formidable ways. (Think Twitter as a euphemistic Shrinky Dink.) There is a website; I have a book. We looked at examples — some created raucous laughter, others brought tears. Then I asked our team to come up with their own six-word memoirs reflective of their lives as athletes. What six words could encapsulate their respective journeys?

I gave them one week to formulate their own and tattoo it on the pink ladder in Sharpie marker. Their words would be a territorial mark on the symbolic tool that would spur them on over the summer months.

You could almost see the wheels racing in their heads. This group “got it.” They would run with this idea. I could tell. And I could not wait to see what next Wednesday held.

Then on Friday, life threw us a curve ball, and the ladder took on a life of its own.

The biopsy came back positive

My 16-year assistant, my college teammate, the maid of honor at my wedding, and my team’s rudder had breast cancer.

It was the call you never want to get. The words you never want to hear. Reality morphed immediately into a slow-motion slosh through phone calls and emails and ‘to do’ lists that helped us feel like we were somehow in charge of it all, though deep down inside we knew we were running in place.

Telling the team was the worst, I think. For those who had nursed loved ones through their own heavyweight fights with cancer, the response was courageous defiance. We could all put a face and a name with what was about to happen — the journey had a form for us. But for those who had never been down such a path, the terror was mysterious and raw. We prayed together. Whit led her peers with the wisdom and the strength of a woman twice her age. And the days sloshed on.

Pink Ladder due date, May 2, came and went. Jan Ross and I were otherwise engaged. We set the surgery date, met with each member of the cancer fight team and did the “hurry up and wait” deal like we were professionals. Then one afternoon during an itchy spell when we’d checked off all the items on our respective lists, I thought about the ladder and asked if she’d like to go down to see it. I secretly wondered if our players had even remembered what I’d asked them to do, much less gotten around to doing it. In the fog of the last few days it would have been an easy forget. And no one would have blamed them for the whiff.

Except they didn’t. Whiff that is. Our guys hit that curve ball smooth out of the park.

Their six-word memoirs graced the legs of the ladder, each neatly printed in individual fonts. I could almost see the ghosts of their personal gravitas as they traced them there. It’s really not an exercise you can do lightly. Then in the middle of trying to match memoir with athlete, we saw it: the six words, each written elegantly, yet with “I mean it” bravado, on its own rung. Our team’s mission for the year ahead: “Playing for our Rock, Coach Ross.”

Precious, priceless moment.

That pink ladder matters. And though I sure didn’t see it coming, now I know exactly how.

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